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Poetic Parlance

Poetic Parlance

Reading your work aloud is an important part of the writing process for any poet. I've mentioned several times on this blog how I can't help but hear my poetry aloud because every word I type is spoken aloud by my screen reader as I type it, and I will listen to the poem read from title to last word several times before I consider the poem ‘done’. I don't find it easy to memorise a whole poem so, generally speaking, I only memorise ones I want to read myself at an event. Back in 2015 when I did my first ever public reading, I managed 3 poems, lasting 4 and a half minutes. At the end of 2017 I had increased my memory capacity to 7 poems lasting thirteen minutes.

Although I love using Hazel (my screen reader’s voice) to read some poems, I always have the worry that the technology is liable to fail, leaving me with half a set of unperformed poems. So, in preparation for my forthcoming twenty minute set at the closing event of this year’s Abergavenny Writing Festival, I am preparing to read the whole twenty minutes from memory.

Recorded Delivery

I've never been taught how to memorise so my method is simply to memorise as many lines as I can, to the point I can regurgitate them proficiently, which is usually two to four lines at a time, and then work on the next two to four lines and then try to join them with the first set. I remember when I was learning a new piece on the piano for music grades, and the repetition of passages ad infinitum until they fell fluently beneath the fingers, was totally required.

It is just as true that delivery of a poem to an audience needs practice — making sure that I know where I'm going to take a breath, which words I need to add emphasis to and how much space to leave between words and line / stanza breaks is commensurate with how well the poem is received by the audience. In ‘Ordinary Lives and Painful’, the last poem in my pamphlet, Dressing Up, there are a couple of places where I need to take a quick breath mid-line else I'll be running on fuel vapours by the last few words. The lines use ragged line breaks to illustrate the jagged edges of life, such as ‘only when fragile leaves a tattered / edge, like snowflakes’. Here's an example of a part from the beginning of Ordinary Lives, where I discovered that breathing was tricky the first time I tried performing it:

What treasures would bloom
if every reflection came back
with stories fit to hold a room in raptures?
This would simply be another,
would only be a fact
and fancy would never flatter
ordinary lives, and painful
imperfections in the loves that matter
would never make them real or better;

Black Holes and Supernovas

It is very easy to get too close to a poem you've written. The words and phrases that I write sound perfect to me, but to somebody else’s ears they might sound not quite right, or even plain wrong. workshopping a poem with fellow poets, in person or online, can pick up things that should be investigated to ensure the phrase or a particular choice of words are producing the intended effect.

I can't share the whole poem with you on this blog yet because I want to enter it into a competition in a few months, but I have a poem which involves a black hole — ‘I am being eaten from within / by my own personal black hole’. My first friend didn't think you could have a personal black hole ... a suggestion I wasn't comfortable with because, scientifically speaking, every galaxy has its own supermassive black hole at its centre so, to the galaxy it does indeed have a personal black hole. In my poem I'm using the black hole metaphorically to describe the personal emptiness inside the protagonist, so I listened to the advice but stuck with what I had originally written.

It must be a year since I received that advice and, in preparation for reading the poem at the Abergavenny Writing Festival, I took it to the creative writing class I attend every week. This was my first time experimenting with singing some lines in the poem to see how class members reacted to the use of sung lines and the ability of myself to sing them; the sung lines are a refrain line between stanzas. Feedback was positive on the singing but the class tutor questioned whether I needed both words in ‘own personal’. I concede that is unnecessary duplication so decided I'd remove either ‘own’ or ‘personal’ and that afternoon I sat down to decide which.

Changing or deleting a word in a poem is often like plastic surgery — sometimes a little bit of nipping and tucking is required to make the line work, both on the page and in performance. Changing ‘my own personal black hole’ to ‘my own black hole’ removes 3 syllables from the line and the effect ruined the flow of that line. The alternative, switching the possessive pronoun ‘my’ for the indefinite article ‘a’ and removing ‘own’ to produce ‘a personal black hole’ still left me a syllable short and, although this poem isn't using any syllabic constraints, it still didn't leave the flow quite as I wanted it for performance purposes.

I decided to accept the removal of ‘own’ but make up for the missing syllable by also swapping ‘personal’ for a different word. Voracious is a word I like a lot when it comes to black holes and appetites, but it also left me a syllable short and with the stresses not quite in the right places — the stressed plosive at the start of ‘personal’ switches to the lesser-stressed ‘r’ in voracious. * Note to self: approach a publisher with a proposal for an I-Spy book of Writing, in which the lesser stressed r will score 5 points ;)

My solution is to change ‘by my own personal black hole’ to ‘by an insatiable black hole’, which keeps the stresses in the same places and doesn't alter the flow of the line in performance.

The Sound of Music

verba volant, scripta manent
words fly away, writings remain
— Quotation from a famous speech of Caius Titus in the ancient Roman Senate.
(from Latin Phrases Wikipedia page)

I have found that practicing the performance of a poem is important; I have found that gaining insights from other people’s listening experience is important; I also find that listening to my own performances is incredibly helpful. I'm the same as most people, listening to a recording of myself reading is a cringeworthy sensation, but it can be very informative. I've attended readings where the poet has performed their work at breakneck speed, to the extent that it was hard to digest everything that was read. I've mentioned in my post The Cardiff Poetry Tea Party on 30 April 2017, how I had intended to start my very first set with a few poems I'd memorised, followed by half a dozen I used my computer screen reader to perform, followed by some more that I had memorised. It was only through listening to it whilst performing the full set to a friend over the phone, did it become apparent that listening to the computer voice reading that many poems in succession was too much. Listening to the set read from start to finish before you are stood on stage in front of an audience is vital to delivering a confident and fluent reading.

This is where it helps to have a recording of the practice run-through. I have one of those spy gadget type USB computer thumb drives that can record audio in wav or mp3 format which I can listen to as many times as I like. Mine isn't actually marketed as a spy device, I bought this device from The Braille Superstore. It is a recording flash drive and, where a device marketed as a spy product will turn itself on and off when it detects any noise, mine has a flick switch that starts a recording of up to 1 hour of audio, so I can start it recording at the start of my practice session and turn it off again at the end.

In issue 89 of Acumen magazine I responded to an article in issue 88 where the author expressed his opinion that poets rarely learn how to perform their work aloud. My response talked about how I not only prepare my delivery but also make sure that any poems I use my screen reader to perform are delivered the very best they can be. I have attended performances where the poet has deliberated whether to read this or that poem in front of the audience, sometimes starting a poem and then stopping after a few lines to tell the audience he wouldn't read that one after all. My own personal opinion is that, if we have poems that are fit to be read to an audience, then we owe it to ourselves and our poetry to make sure we deliver it as best we can :)

#Poetry #Performance #Preparations #Workshopping #BlackHoles

Published inPoetry


  1. I found it very interesting reading about your method of learning poems by heart, and I wonder how people vary in their methodology. Mine includes copying them out, for example, and sometimes I also record them and say them aloud with the recording. But I don’t think I am a terrifically skilled memoriser, so it would be good to know what works for other people.

    But one other thing struck me, when you were talking about working out where your pauses would come, and where you need to take a breath etc, and it is this. When I do a live poetry reading, I always read more slowly than I do when practising on my own, and there are always unpredictable aspects to the pacing.

    That’s because I have to take account of the people who are listening, so I’m watching the response in their faces and body language, and to some extent playing to it.

    Sometimes I direct a line at one person in particular (this can be quite fun depending on the line).

    But I realise that a blind poet can’t watch the audience to take account of their response.

    I still wonder whether you can listen for it. Can you listen to the type of silence you get, for example? Sometimes there is a particular kind of silence at the end of a poem, which requires you not to start on another poem for significantly longer than you had thought.

    Also, of course, if you’re reading in a public space with a lot of background noise (someone washing up in the next room), sometimes you have to stop for a couple of minutes until the hubbub dies down.

    Does this make any sense?

  2. Giles Giles

    I agree on all of those observations! My screen reader speaks 20x faster than I’d read for an audience, or the speed I set it at for performance to an audience, but if I’m memorising a poem for performance then I do it at performance speed even whilst learning the text. I do pick up on the silences and the humour and adjust pauses to accomodate them. My self harm poem usually has a definite sense of quiet as I finish reading it. In some of the poems I use the screen reader for there are elements of humour and it’s difficult to program them into the screen reader to accomodate any chuckles. The biggest pause I can put into the text is a single full stop. Using two full stops doesn’t produce twice the pause. The very first reading I did, the 3 poems at Risca Library, there was an awful lot of background noise, though the only way to deal with that was to read more loudly!

    As you say, reading to a specific face in the audience isn’t something I can easily do. I try and turn my head across the audience during or between poems, but it’s hard not being able to see the faces. I suspect I am staring about two feet above the heads if I’m standing on a stage! 😉

  3. Very helpful and interesting. Sometimes it helps me to have a copy handy when I’m walking. As I walk I say the lines I can remember, gradually increasing them. I’ve worked with actors who record everything on to disc, then play it in the car. Somehow thr rhythm and intonation stick, carrying the words.

  4. Giles Giles

    thanks Hilary, I am glad you liked this post. Not being able to see a printout of text does make it harder to learn a poem because I think the brain holds a visual picture of what the poem looks like on the page, which maybe provides a cue for where you’re at in the poem. I’d love to be able to read while out and about but (a) I’m not out and about very often, and (b) when I am it is vital for me to listen to my environment to tell where I am. I put a video on YouTube of me walking down the road in my village as far as the bus stop and back, and you can hear how my white cane makes different sounds as it touches the grass compared to the pavement and the edge of the kerb, so it would be dangerous for me to be listening to poetry whilst moving 🙂

    I think we definitely do pick things up from audio repetition, the way songs embed themselves as earworms for example, but when I’m listening to recordings I’ve made at my readings, I find myself concentrating on where I’ve made mistakes and, if I’m trying to learn a new piece I’ve written, I don’t have a recording to listen to to learn from! 🙂

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